By Noreen O’Brien, special correspondent to Marine Parts Express
Most of us readily recognize the ubiquitous snowbird, or Dark-eyed Junco (as birders know them). Juncos, mostly short-distance migrants, arrive in Maine from parts north as early as mid-August (some do nest here), but virtually all are in place in time for the first snowfall, hence the pet name for the birds.
A well-studied species, juncos live across all of North America and down to northern Mexico, with a number of different races within the two species—Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed—that are scattered throughout their range. The most likely race of the Dark-eyed Junco we see here in Maine is the Slate-colored.
This small, but plump bird, with its pink bill, overall slate gray color (females are browner), white belly and white outer tail feathers that flash when the bird takes flight, is actually a sparrow. As such, they are ground feeders particularly fond of the small seeds of weedy shrubs, bits found in the leaf litter or on lawns, and commercial seed, such as millet, rather than sunflower seeds that spill out of birdfeeders.
Juncos tend to scratch the ground’s surface in search of food, hopping forward and kicking in a backward motion. Watch these birds closely. Typically, the more birds in the flock, the less frequently the individuals look up from their feeding. There is safety in numbers (one of the values to birds flocking), because it reduces stress to individual birds as they “relax” a bit while they eat without having to be constantly looking over a shoulder for what might make a meal of them.
Juncos appear to be a favorite food of Sharp-shinned Hawks. An impressive predator that will actually take a Mourning Dove, a bird approximately the same size as the hawk. Juncos also can fall prey to owls and shrikes. However, the main predator of the junco, particularly those around bird feeding stations, appears to be cats, both feral and domestic. According to one individual from California, a flock of 35 juncos at a feeder “lost one bird daily until two cats and one shrike were shot, whereupon mortality ceased.” Not surprisingly, it is unclear who shot the cats and the shrike.
For fluid intake, juncos drink from small streams, sip from moisture on vegetation or eat snow. Like their cousins the American Tree Sparrow, juncos will bathe in light, fluffy, “dry” snow, similar to the way some birds take a dust bath. The birds dip head first toward the ground flapping their wings and collecting snow to toss over their bodies, and then they preen individual feathers to keep them clean. To clean their bill, they will swipe first one side of the bill then the other from the base to the tip on a branch. They perform this bill-swiping frequently, so do keep on the lookout for this action.
For nighttime roosting, juncos prefer conifer, cedar trees or bushes to remain out of the cold winds. Often, they will snuggle into the bushes around the front of our homes for warmth during cold and snowy nights. When no such shrub is available, these birds hunker down on the ground under dried leaves, at the base of tall grasses or in brush piles—another good reason to maintain at least one year-round brush pile in a corner of your yard.
Meanwhile, it is likely that these birds are helped through the winter by seed that falls to the ground out of bird feeders. Studies show that northern wintering populations of juncos probably suffer from starvation during harsh winters with lots of snow cover. With this in mind, when shoveling the walkway, remember to shovel an area at the base of the feeders and spread fresh mixed seed for these birds, as well as for the cardinals, other sparrows, Mourning Doves and other ground feeders.
Perhaps the junco is not as brilliant as the cardinal is against the backdrop of snow, but juncos do add a measure of cheer and a flurry of activity out there on a cold winter’s day. And those white outer tail feathers flash like a piece of ribbon as the birds flutter hither and thither around the yard, adding yet another spot of cheer out our windows. I encourage you to offer their favorite food of mixed seeds, which is rather inexpensive, to attract them to your yard. And, both sexes sing—even in winter. Listen for a musical trill on one pitch, and enjoy the snowbirds.
All of us here at Marine Parts Express “overwinter” here in Maine, but many of our customers are true snowbirds and skip down to more southern climes. We ship their parts directly to them and we are happy to ship worldwide. For all your marine engine parts needs, call us toll free at 877.621.2628, or outside the U.S., 207.882.6165.
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